ORLANDO, Fla. -- When Jimmy Graham, Miami's 6-foot-8 backup tight end, lines up across from a defensive back who is sometimes nearly a foot shorter, he will often get "the look."

That will sometimes be followed by a little banter.

"Some of them start smiling at me," said Graham, a former basketball player. "There was one game, I had an incident, I was split out, the dude started smiling at me. I asked him if he was supposed to guard me. He was like, `I'm going to try to.'

"I was like, `Well, I'll pray for you.' It's just kind of funny sometimes."

There's nothing comical about the challenge that's awaiting the University of Wisconsin defensive backs when they face the Hurricanes in the Champs Sports Bowl on Tuesday.

Facing Miami is a tall task, to say the least, with three of its top four wide receivers 6-3 or taller. The top three tight ends average 6-5.

UW strong safety Jay Valai, who is generously listed at 5-9, was asked to describe Graham.

"Ummm, tall," Valai said. "Very tall. Played a lot of basketball, so there's going to be a lot of jump balls for us. Good football player."

Graham has caught only 14 passes but five are for touchdowns. He is just the start of the problems when it comes to facing what might be one of the deepest and most talented receiving corps in the nation.

The Hurricanes have six receivers who have at least 200 receiving yards and Graham needs just 17 yards to become the seventh. But it's not just the size of the receivers, or the depth, that presents so many problems.

"Size and speed," said sophomore Brandon Harris, the Canes' All-American cornerback. "A lot of people may slip on our speed, but those guys can run pretty well. You slip up on them, they'll run by you."

Harris knows because he battles against them every day in practice.

"Practice is tough," he said. "We keep score and we compete in every drill we do."

The receiver group is led by 6-3 junior Leonard Hankerson, the only receiver to have a catch in every game. He is averaging a team-best 17.6 yards per reception, and his 773 receiving yards are the most at the school since Andre Johnson had 1,092 in 2002.

The only receiver in the top four who is not 6-3 or taller is sophomore Travis Benjamin, who is 5-10. According to Valai, he might be the best of the group. Benjamin is averaging 17.5 yards per catch, one of three receivers on the team averaging more than 17.

"A speedster, kind of like (UW receiver) David Gilreath but a little faster," Valai said. "They've got some great players. We've got to be ready to play."

It's no wonder, Miami sophomore quarterback Jacory Harris has been prone to interceptions this season. He is willing to throw the ball up for grabs because he has so much faith in his receivers.

"I guess I kind of take advantage of that a little bit too much," said Harris, who has thrown for 3,164 yards and 23 touchdowns. "That's why you see those 17 interceptions.

"At the same time, that just shows how much faith I have in my receivers and tight ends. Even the running backs. Everybody's involved in this passing attack. The running backs, they establish the run game to help us open it up."

Harris doesn't think enough attention gets paid to the team's running backs. Three players share the load. Graig Cooper (666 rushing yards), Damien Berry (587) and Javarris James (491). All three average more than 5 yards a carry.

"I think people overlook it because we don't have that 1,000-yard back," Harris said. "If we had that one guy just running the ball, he would have about 1,400 yards total and be ranked in the nation."

The Badgers rank eighth nationally in run defense, allowing 90.5 yards per game. But they are just 66th in pass defense, allowing 219.9 yards per game.

The pass defense has been good at times, holding Purdue to 81 yards and Hawaii to 197. The Warriors came in ranked third nationally in passing, averaging 348.7 yards.

The formula that worked against Hawaii, when the Badgers had a season-high six sacks, is one they would like to follow against Miami.

"We don't want Jacory Harris to have a lot of time to throw the ball, check his first read, second read, third read and pull down and scramble," said senior defensive end O'Brien Schofield. "We don't want to put our D-backs in that situation. Our mind-set is just like Hawaii, it's very important for us to get pressure."

In addition to pressure, the best ways to combat Miami's big receivers are with good technique and being physical.

"Just don't back down from them," Valai said. "If you back down and act scared, they're going to come and attack you every play. Just fear no man and go out there and play football."

 

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